On Friday, February 27, Secretary of Defense Gates held a telephonic press conference with national and international media to answer questions about President Obama’s announcement earlier in the day, at the Marine base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, of his plans to withdraw and reconfigure U.S. troop deployments in the Middle East. (The President’s remarks can be read here. )
The Secretary of Defense’s brief presentation was followed by reporters’ Q&A. Unfortunately, AT&T put me on hold for nearly ten minutes before adding me to the call, so I missed the Secretary’s remarks, but complete audio of the subsequent Q&A is provided below, followed by a (very!) brief summary/index of the questioners and the general topics they addressed.
(Three side notes:
1. All the major presidential campaigns conducted regular telephonic press conferences like this, allowing media located outside the Beltway and off the campaign buses to obtain direct news. However, it's been a delight to have the White House continue the tradition. Also delightful is the fact that the White House, like the Obama campaign but unlike the McCain campaign, appears to be taking questioners on a first-come, first-served basis, so that lesser-known media outlets (like a tribal newspaper on an earlier call, and the well-respected Washington Independent on this one) have as much chance to ask questions of newsmakers as the more familiar, mainstream outlets do. This is a tremendous advance in transparency, and one the Administration should be proud of (and continue!).
2. I'll try to record and post calls like these, as well as posting "primary source" documents like press releases, pleadings in political litigation, etc., on this site. Please subscribe to this site's rss feed to be notified of updates; I also post them on Twitter (@msbellows).
3. If you have suggestions for materials to post, or can chip in on the recording tasks, please let me know (msbellows -at- gmail.com). And, if you like this service of Warranted Wiretaps, please spread the word!)
UPDATE, 1:01 pm Pacific: transcript of the call just issued, readable here.
UPDATE 2, 1:04 pm Pacific: press office issues a 'Fact Sheet" on "Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq."
Audio of Press Conference Call:
Index of Questioners, with Timestamps:
0:00:08: Martha Raddatz, ABC News: all troops out by 2011 seems definitive; did the President really mean all forces? Answer: under current Status of Forces agreement, that’s the deadline; it would require some Iraqi initiative to consider negotiating anything different.
0:01:27: Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg News: why difference from 16 to 19 months? Answer: commanders in field were concerned about getting through the upcoming Iraqi elections and allowing a period of adjustment afterward, allowing strong troop presence during that “sensitive period.”
0:03:04: Andrew Hooray (sp?), Reuters: Possibility of forces remaining after the 19 months? Answer: “we’ll have to wait and see; it’s a hypothetical” and again depends on whether Iraqis seek that. In any case he believes would be a “very modest” presence.
0:04:17: Brian Montopoli, CBS News: concerns the difference between combat and non-combat troops. Once combat troops are out, what will remaining “non-combat” troops be capable of? Answer: those left will have combat capability, including targeted counterterrorism, embeds with Iraqi units, etc. But their mission will be completely different.
0:05:36: Rachel Martin, ABC News: How flexible is this plan, given President’s past statements about reacting to conditions on ground? And if fluid, why set a date at all? Answer: important to have a date marking conclusion of one mission and commencing a “completely new, different” mission. Still, President as C-I-C retains ability to make changes, even though he doesn’t anticipate doing so. All expect to meet these timelines.
0:07:33: James Meek, New York Daily News: 17,000 troops are going to Afghanistan; 55,000 by summer; is that a buildup rather than a surge? Do you see that force remaining or growing even larger? Answer: no one to his knowledge has referred to additional troops as a “surge.” Length of deployment and number depend on review that’s underway now, and there won’t be a real sense of size or duration of force until President makes his decision after that review.
0:09:25: Dan Sagalyn, The NewsHour: The President’s plan calls for 35,000-50,000 troops remaining after a few months. Will existing troops be renamed or redesignated, or new units created? And how will the specific Marines Obama spoke to today be used in Afghanistan? Answer: second part, many different roles (some listed in the audio); first part, question better directed to General Odierno, but idea is to consolidate U.S. forces into a few areas for purposes of civilian and reconstruction protection. Whether those will be new vs. remissioned units remains to be seen.
0:11:22: Jason Austin, Fox News Radio: If situation in Iraq turned worse, has President said how many combat troops he’d add? Answer: too hypothetical. The President’s decisions already have taken risks surrounding elections into account in setting his timetable, accounting for those kinds of contingencies. The Iraqis are going to have to step up to their responsibilities, as they did well during provincial elections.
0:12:58: Julian Barnes, L.A. Times: The drawdown is “backloaded” to 2010 to allow for Iraqi elections. How many troops will come out this year, and will air assets be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, and when? Answer: the two theaters are clearly separate, and he doesn’t know answer about air assets. They are adding air reconnaissance etc. to Afghanistan; so far those have been new, but in future some may be moved from Iraq. Specifics will depend on Odierno’s recommendations.
0:14:48: Anne Gearan, Associated Press: What happened to 23 month option that had been argued for by some? How arrive at 19 months? Answer: various options – 16 months, 19 months, 23 months, dated from Inauguration – were weighed against risks, stress on the force, need for additional capability in Afghanistan. Generals Odierno and Petraeus, Chiefs [of Staff], Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs], and himself are comfortable w President’s decision.
0:16:40: Spencer Ackerman, The Washington Independent: In his speech, Obama spoke about a training mission contingent on nonsectarianism; how will US react if Iraqi units begin acting in sectarian ways? Answer: he’s been pleased by operation of Iraqi Army as a nonsectarian force, developing and acting along nonsectarian lines. Relationships are close; if the U.S. saw sectarian issues arise, they’d raise with Iraqi leadership.
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